Can Alcohol Ever Actually Help Your Anxiety?

Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
I’m at home trying to watch Master of None when my thoughts start to tangle.
“I keep sneezing today. I also haven’t hoovered for a while – what if there are dust mites in my lungs? Can dust mites lay eggs? What if there’s a parasitic egg in my nasal passage and it grows into a tapeworm that relocates to my brain? Oh, what if my dog has that lungworm thing? He might be dying or already dead and no one’s told me yet. I need to text my dad and check if he’s dead.”
In that moment there are many things I could do to feel better: slow breathing, yoga, a bath or a game of Sims – but instead I grab a beer. Not because I think it’s the best option but because it’s easy, and I feel like I can rely on it to slow my mind and relieve the stomach-churning dread of anxiety.
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Recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that young women have emerged as the biggest binge drinkers since current research began, while another study released by the NHS revealed that one in four young women have experienced mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. A connection between the two seems impossible to ignore.
Having suffered from anxiety most of my life, with particular emphasis on social anxiety, alcohol initially became an easy way for me to medicate the sweaty-palmed panic I’d feel when out in the pub with new people. As I’ve gotten older – and less sociable – my anxiety has become more generalised, meaning alcohol makes more sense in front of the TV before bed.
I’m not the only one using booze to manage my mental health. 29-year-old blogger, Sophie, suffers from depression and anxiety, and has previously been diagnosed with an eating disorder, psychosis and OCD. She’s had a love/hate relationship with alcohol since the age of 16: “My eating disorder despised it due to calorie content but my anxiety craved it to calm my nerves.”
Binge drinking fuelled much of Sophie’s teenage years and early 20s before she realised that the short-term relief made her long-term conditions worse.
“I am on lots of medication, which alcohol doesn't mix well with and I know overall I am much better avoiding alcohol completely as I drink myself into oblivion to try to get over the pain my anxiety causes.”
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26-year-old Jade* started drinking to deal with her generalised anxiety and agoraphobia, caused in part by a chronic illness that had left her housebound. “A couple of shots of Cherry Sours for lunch and the anxiety quietened down. It worked. I started to feel numb (part of my illness includes alcohol intolerance),” she tells me.
This curing effect was a welcome surprise. “It started to become a regular occurrence and I'd be having some every weekday or when I had to face something that started to induce panic.”
Many of us drink to ease social anxiety but for 24-year-old Amy*, the anxiety was more extreme, meaning she couldn’t even make a phone call to the hairdressers or attend her classes without having a panic attack. “Around this time I went out with a few friends and got drunk. I think here I noticed the newfound confidence that comes with the right amount of alcohol.”
Beginning work full-time after graduating then opened her up to a completely different crowd of people; people whose daily routine was the pub at lunch and after work, too. So she joined in.
“I was at ease with myself and cracked jokes and was able to hold a genuine conversation without being so self-conscious. This eventually turned into a couple of drinks every day at lunch, and quite a few more after work every single day.”
Amy’s religion doesn’t allow intoxication of any kind, so when her family found out about her lifestyle, she was forced to reconsider how it was affecting her.
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“I stopped drinking and found it easier to chat with people but never as easy as it was when I was a bit tipsy. I now drink socially rather than every day but I do miss that feeling and kind of feel like I'm missing out on something.”
I drink a beer or two every other evening. To my mind this isn’t such a bad way of managing my anxiety; it’s better than binge drinking and helps me to fall asleep after years of anxiety-induced insomnia. Chloe Brotheridge, an anxiety expert, hypnotherapist and author, disagrees.
“Alcohol unfortunately just masks the real issue and can hold women back from addressing their anxiety and making lasting progress,” she says.
It’s easy to view alcohol as a kind of costume, as though downing a glass of prosecco will transform you into somebody cool and calm. As Chloe reminds me, this is a facade that quickly wears off.
Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
“Alcohol might alleviate anxiety in the short term, it doesn’t address the core issue; your anxieties will still be there in the morning. Add to that the fact that for many people one glass of wine turns into one bottle and the 'hangxiety' the next day can be horrendous.”
Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist, couples counsellor and life coach, agrees, but also says that medicating anxiety with alcohol really depends on the person. “If you actually need that alcohol to feel you can relax then that indicates a level of dependency. On the other hand, if you sometimes just enjoy a glass of alcohol to relax and unwind that’s quite different.”
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She tells me a better way to respond to anxiety is through befriending it. “Rather than running away from it or, even more damaging, worrying about the stress before it actually appears, gently get to know it. Sometimes this will involve some chair work where you try and engage in dialogue with the stress. Often it's a question of building up confidence – a reminder that you have dealt with and come through stressful situations in the past. It's important to hold in mind that the anxiety will not annihilate you.”
Of the women I spoke to, most had stopped drinking or at least learnt to moderate it.
“I started to focus on helping myself. The booze helped me get to a point where I wasn’t being as affected by my agoraphobia and I stopped feeling the need for alcohol as much," Jade tells me.
“Medication, and teaching myself coping mechanisms etc. have made a huge difference. I do sometimes end up using Diazepam, which sedates me in a similar way to the alcohol, but it's not something I depend on in the same way as I once did with alcohol.”
The first part of a quote by Leo Buscaglia goes “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow” and sadly, the same is true of a bottle of wine. I’m still going to drink the occasional beer at home, but as a treat rather than a reliable way to feel better. For that, maybe a cup of tea and game of Sims isn’t such a bad idea.
*Name has been changed
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